A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die

Director: Franco Giraldi                        
Alex Cord, Arthur Kennedy, Robert Ryan

Here's a spaghetti western that has a different plot for a change. Though I love the western, especially spaghetti westerns, there's no way I can pretend that spaghetti westerns usually center around one of three basic plots: (1) The protagonist going on a quest for revenge after being wronged in some fashion, (2) the mysterious protagonist deciding to go on a killing spree against some bad guys for money or simply because "it's the right thing to do", or (3) the protagonist going on a long trek for some kind of treasure, while bad guys pursue both him and the treasure. I never mind seeing these plots over and over again, as long as they are well made each time. Still, it's nice seeing a spaghetti western that breaks away from the formulas and does something different; that, and some good moments make A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die a good pasta oater, though if the makers just fixed a few problems here and there, it could have been a minor classic.

Before discussing the plot, I want to point out that not only does this movie have a different plot than usual, it also has an atypical protagonist - if you can call this central character a protagonist. Clay McCord (Cord) is an outlaw, one who has had a long career of crime. Having the focus on such a character is rare, though not completely unusual in westerns, spaghetti or not. Neither are the vignettes where we see him steal from innocent people and putting the drop on pursuing bounty hunters, laughing all the time and making us feel less of him.

What is unusual about McCord are some glimpses into his character that help make him be seen in a light not totally unsympathetic. In many scenes, we see this unshaven, sickly man slowly riding along the range in shabby clothing - his lifestyle clearly isn't the glamorous one depicted in dime novels. Several times he is savagely beaten by people even more loathsome than he is. Throughout the movie, McCord also struggles with personal demons, mental and physical. His mind keeps wandering to his childhood, living with a severely epileptic father which gave him feeling of shame and humiliation from their cruel neighbors. Now that's he's grown, he has not only started to get the kind of seizures his father got, they are starting to get worse. Looking at his face after each seizure, it's clear McCord feels that he's going to die sooner, rather than later.

With all of these burdens, it's a wonder McCord doesn't collapse when he falls into a difficult dilemma not long after the movie starts, when he and his outlaw friend Fred discover, during a telegraph office robbery, that New Mexico Governor Lem Carter (Ryan) is offering amnesty for all outlaws who come to the town of Tascosa and pledge to stop their lives of crime. Though McCord initially laughs at this announcement, you can tell even then that he's thinking about it, mainly because of his health.

It's far from an easy decision for him. For one thing, there is the problem of the leader of Escondido (a town entirely populated by criminals), who fears that if McCord signs the agreement, his followers will follow suit. He's determined to stop McCord from signing the agreement, either with cajoling or by outright murder. At the same time, McCord doesn't make it easier for himself when he sneaks into Tascosa one night and asks the sheriff how much they will pay him if he quits his life of crime. With this announcement, I branded McCord as a greedy lout. But later in the movie, my view of him changed when he explained his reasoning: "When I make that new start, I've got to have something to make it with."

He has a point; we see enough of his past in his flashbacks to see that this lifestyle he currently has is the only one where he has any skill to make a living out of. Certainly not a great way to live, but the only one he knows. All of these details about McCord make him a multilayered character, one that is both intriguing and more interesting than your typical central figure in a western. I was curious about how he felt and thought, what his decisions would be, and why he decided to do what he did.

Later in the movie, there is a big revelation (which I won't detail) that obviously gets him to rethink everything about himself and his life, and also gets us to rethink everything we've learned about him. The screenwriters should be commended for all of their effort to make McCord so complex, and for not just stopping with him. Though the work on the other characters was nowhere as extensive, we get to see more than one side for the marshal (Kennedy) and the Governor. You even see more than one viewpoint for the bounty hunters; sure, they are after McCord and trying to kill him, but what they are doing is justified under the law.

All the performances are good, notably Alex Cord. Several times he had to show his pain and anguish without words, and he succeeds doing so by facial expressions and forcing his agonized body to walk forward, stumbling a little along the way. His physical performance is also good in the action sequences, making the movements of a desperate man. There isn't as much action in A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die as with other westerns, but the few scenes are well executed and varied, from brutal and tiring beatings, to a shootout in a church and a chase in a forest. The highlight is the climax, which gives us goodies like one spectacular visual and the last few seconds of the sequence being especially satisfying.

Not only are the action sequences executed with professionalism, but so is the rest of the movie. The buildings convincingly look baked by the sun and covered with dust, and the outdoor locations (deserts, forests) don't just look sweeping, but make you feel like you're in No Man's Land at the same time. The photography - indoors or outdoors, day or night - has given the movie spectacular colors, evident even in the older print I saw. (A restoration for DVD would make it look even better.) Director Franco Giraldi not only worked to give the movie a good look, but also seems to have intentionally given the movie an undertone of cruelty and savagery. We feel how hostile and lawless this land and time must have been, not just from seeing someone tortured, but when we see a freezing cowboy huddled in a shabby  blanket. He put a lot of effort into this movie

If only he had managed to go for that extra mile, there possibly wouldn't be anything to complain about. One thing I wish Giraldi had done would have been for him to pay closer attention to the musical score, both during its composition and when it was being edited in. Composer Carlo Rustichelli (The Three Musketeers Of The West, I Tre Che Sconvolsero Il West) does well during the quieter moments, with his gentle music sounding vaguely Morricone-like. During the more intense moments, though, his score frequently becomes loud and overbearing. It's also at times edited in inappropriate moments, and other times the score is abruptly cut off instead of fading out or coming to the end of the piece.

Another problem is that there are some parts of the movie lacking proper explanations. Who exactly, for example, is Lorinda, the woman McCord finds in his abandoned home? Why does he accept her so quickly, and let her stay with him. What exactly is the past relationship between McCord and the untrustworthy outlaw leader of Escondido? Now I did watch this movie on TV, and it's possible some explanations were lost in order to make room for more commercials, but I seriously doubt there were explanations for every such question in the uncut print. The missing explanations don't create any real holes in the plot, but it does seem unusual how characters seem to accept certain things as a matter of fact. Flaws aside, A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die is a welcome change of pace for the spaghetti western genre, entertaining us with its action and complexity.

UPDATE: "rmahaney4" explained the movie's unanswered questions via this letter:

"Read and agreed with your review of A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die. The English language version is cut by some 20 minutes from what I hear (97-99min v. 118) which could explain some of the incoherence. Also the original ending in the non-English versions has the "hero" McCord killed by bounty hunters after riding out of town at the end, which I have heard from people in the Spaghetti Western cult increases the impact of the film. Widescreen would have helped, also."

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